On football map, Terps plot tough future path

Key contributors depart on both sides of the ball

January 03, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Ralph Friedgen doesn't sleep much. Four hours is typically a good night, but there were times during the 2003 season when he would toss and turn, unable to relax. No matter. Come daybreak, he would simply make do with less. When you're trying to build a national football power from the ground up, sleep is the first casualty.

"I think I've worked hard this season," Friedgen said after Maryland's 41-7 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. "It's been a drain on me. In some ways, it was harder [to motivate] these players than with [the] previous two [teams]. In the same tone, it might be more rewarding, because this team could have went the other way very easily. It didn't."

Regardless of where Maryland ends up in the final polls next week, it's clear Friedgen has put Maryland on the map. With a 31-8 record, he's off to the best three-year start in Atlantic Coast Conference history, and after going 10-3 this year, Maryland joined Texas, Oklahoma, Miami and Washington State as the only schools to win at least 10 games the past three seasons.

"Now, how many times has Maryland been in the same breath as those teams?" Friedgen said. "That's how much it means. We're starting to make a move. ... I think we have a lot of respect among colleges. Problem is, [the media] write us off once we lose a couple games. To me, it's where you are at the end of the year, not where you are after the third game."

To sustain the current momentum, Friedgen knows next season will be critical, and it may be the biggest challenge he's faced since coming to College Park in 2001. The Terps lose three players in their secondary - Madieu Williams, Curome Cox and Dennard Wilson - linebackers Leon Joe and Leroy Ambush, nose tackle C.J. Feldheim and, on offense, quarterback Scott McBrien, running back Bruce Perry, receiver Latrez Harrison and guards Lamar Bryant and Eric Dumas.

"It's going to be tough," said center Kyle Schmitt, who along with Stephon Heyer and C.J. Brooks will be back on the offensive line. "We're losing a lot of experienced guys. But we'll get some leadership from guys like Steve Suter and C.J. Brooks, and we certainly have some talented young guys on defense in D'Qwell [Jackson] and Shawne [Merriman]. We'll see what happens."

Maryland also will have to wait and see if defensive tackle Randy Starks decides to return for his senior year or enter the NFL draft. Starks, who has earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors the past two seasons, has said throughout the season he wouldn't leave Maryland unless he was certain he would be a first-round pick. Recent draft projections have him going anywhere from the middle of the first round to early in the second.

Clearly, though, the biggest challenge will be replacing quarterback McBrien, who has won more games in two years (21) than any quarterback in school history.

"I'd like to have him for two more years," Friedgen said. "He's kind of like what [former Maryland quarterback] Shaun Hill was. He just kind of understands what's going on, and now we've got to start over again and break a new guy in."

The competition should be wide-open. Friedgen said he has no interest in bringing a junior-college quarterback into the program, and so it's likely that Maryland will open its 2004 season under the direction of a quarterback with little or no college experience.

Joel Statham, who will be a sophomore, served as McBrien's backup for the second half of this season, but didn't distinguish himself in limited action. Second-year freshman Ryan Mitch will also be a candidate. Mitch, like McBrien, had a standout career at DeMatha High School and is an accurate passer. The wild card is Jordan Steffy, a highly rated recruit from Leola, Pa. Privately, those within the program say Steffy will be given an opportunity to compete for the starting job right away.

It might seem unlikely that a quarterback just three months removed from his high school graduation could digest Friedgen's complex offense, but it's also a measure of how much recruiting has improved in the past three seasons. Friedgen believes Maryland's 2004 class, which is ranked in the top 10, will be the best in school history. But there is still work to be done.

"There are still holes in this program," Friedgen said. "We're building. I think we're a couple of recruiting seasons away to really be where I want to be. It's tough to tell your players that, and it's tough to tell your fans that. But that comes with the territory of expectations. We're going to have to learn how to deal with that, and really, we're going to have to expect it."

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